September 26, 2016
By Jaco b Seibel
Ruth Mendoza carried an electronic, pocket-size Spanish-English translator for months when she and her family immigrated to Wilkes-Barre.
The 38-year-old Puerto Rico native would pull the translator out from her purse any time she was shopping or running errands and punch in the word she needed.
For more complicated chores, such as opening a bank account or signing her daughter up for school, she would recruit a friend to translate.
Almost two decades of trial and error and a couple English classes later, not only has she ditched her pocket translator, but she has become a friend other Hispanics turn to for translation.
“It’s funny,” she said. “When I first came here and heard somebody speaking Spanish, I would get excited and strike up a conversation with them. There just weren’t a lot of Latinos.”
Mendoza’s story reflects those of many members of the region’s burgeoning Hispanic population. The language barrier is the most obvious struggle for Hispanics who immigrate to the United States. Despite the Hispanic population boom in the region that started at the turn of the century, human service agencies and other institutions across Luzerne County are just now adapting to cater to such residents or reshuffling and expanding current practices.
In 2000, there were 3,713 Hispanics in the county, according to U.S. Census data. By 2010, Luzerne County became the county with the fastest growing Hispanic population in the nation with 21,491, with Hazleton and Wilkes-Barre having the majority of the Hispanic population in the county — 66 percent — according to the most recent census data for the two cities. In 2015, there were an estimated 31,208 Hispanic residents.
Many Hispanics move to the region from larger cities in the northeastern United States, attracted by the area’s low cost of living.
They may have lived in the United States for a few years or are second-generation immigrants, and many will know English as a second language, said Angel Jirau, executive director of Spanish American Leaders Serving All. However, many only have limited English skills when they arrive.
Jirau said government agencies haven’t been able to inform the community on what services are available.
They have also had trouble expanding their hiring practices to bring in more bilingual employees to serve those with limited English skills. The problem: a shortage of qualified, bilingual applicants.
“When an agency tells me, ‘Well, we have someone who’s taking Spanish 101,’ I commend their efforts,” he said. “But I say you can do better.”
“All the services are available,” Jirau added. “It’s just that agencies, as well-intentioned as they are, they are not equipped to deal with the Spanish-speaking community. And again, why not? Anyone who doesn’t speak the language falls behind. Many go without services.”
This appears to be a trend across all levels of local government.
Michael Donahue, division head for Luzerne County Human Services, said the county is in the beginning stages of developing plans to launch phone translation services for non-English speaking people. While the county has made a conscious effort to try to hire bilingual staff members, he said one of the biggest problems is that the pool of qualifying applicants is small. Alternatively, Spanish 101 classes for employees are offered.
“This has been a problem for quite sometime. That’s why we thought if we can’t expand the Spanish-speaking staff, then we can at least get them enrolled in Spanish classes,” he said. “We are going to have to really continue to work hard to meet the needs of the community.”
Like the county, some municipalities are in the early stages of diversifying staff and providing better services to accommodate the Hispanic population.
Offering assistance in Spanish isn’t just good practice — for offices that receive funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it’s the law.
HUD requires recipients of federal financial assistance, such as the community development offices in Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton, to take reasonable steps to meet their regulatory and statutory obligations to ensure that people with limited English skills have meaningful access to HUD programs and activities.
Both the cities of Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton have been revising their plans for helping with limited English proficiency services. Currently, when people who have difficulty speaking English seek services at one of the offices in city hall in Wilkes-Barre or Hazleton, workers ask their preferred language and offer to obtain an interpreter.
Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tony George’s administration met with a dozen people of diverse backgrounds in August to begin improving relations between the city and all its residents.
However, Wilkes-Barre is facing the same problem as the county in not being able to attract bilingual job candidates.
The city’s employee roster shows a stark lack of diversity, Wilkes-Barre City Administrator Ted Wampole said. One initiative the city is working on is expanding the hiring pool.
“We know that the percentages of the workforce don’t represent the community as a whole,” he said. “We need to do a better job of getting that message out.”
Wilkes-Barre City Councilwoman Beth Gilbert has begun posting updates on her official council Facebook page in Spanish as well as English. The city is home to Spanish-speaking residents who want to play an active role in their community but have difficulty reading English, she said, prompting her to translate her posts.
In contrast, U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-11, Hazleton, former mayor of Hazleton, said he is against government spending to provide services for Hispanics with limited English skills because providing materials and support in multiple languages drives up costs to taxpayers and deters individuals from learning English.
A common language is perhaps the most basic thing that has historically united Americans, Barletta said. He had passed a law in Hazleton designating English as the official language of the city, though he said they did provide some materials in other languages if they were needed.
He said during his tenure as Hazleton mayor, for example, the Hazleton Area School District budget for English as a second language instruction grew from $500 each year to over $1.5 million.
The U.S. Department of Education, he said, has also found that people who cannot speak English are more likely to be unemployed, earn less money, and find it more difficult to be successful.
“Making it easier for people to avoid learning English actually hurts them, rather than helping them,” he said.
Family and God. These are two of the most foremost values in Latino cultures.
The Catholic Church plays a central role in serving the Hispanic population across the region. The Diocese of Scranton oversees 11 counties, including Luzerne.
A historic turn was taken in 2010 by the mainly ethnic-German parish of St. Nicholas Church in Wilkes-Barre. When Holy Rosary Church on Park Avenue closed, the diocese needed a home for the Hispanic ministry which had been located there. Monsignor Joseph G. Rauscher, who retired in 2015, and the St. Nicholas family welcomed about 400 Hispanic families into the flourishing ministry.
Ruth Mendoza, a native of Puerto Rico, said when she started attending Holy Rosary in 1999, there were a half-dozen Hispanics in the parish — including herself.
“When I first came, I was shocked because there were only five people, but it was some place I could go,” she said. “It’s my people, you know?”
St. Nicholas Parish serves as a pillar for about 11 percent of the city’s Hispanic community. The parish now has an estimated 400 to 500 parishioners at peak attendance, which is primarily made up of Mexicans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans.
Rev. Fidel Ticona celebrates Spanish-language Masses at St. Nicholas on South Washington St. where he resides. But giving sermons and providing spiritual counseling aren’t his only jobs. He plays many roles helping Hispanics, whether it be as a marriage counselor or an advisor in legal matters or just someone who assists others with every-day tasks like paying a bill.
“For me it’s kind of challenging. They come for help. I’m supposed to help,” he said. “Sometimes how to handle their issues — I’m faced with the difficulty of ethics.”
St. Nicholas is one of a number of places the Spanish community can turn to for assistance.
Mary Theresa Vautrinot, executive director of Catholic Social Services, said those in the human services business need to work collaboratively with each other’s organizations.
Through various existing partnerships, the diocese provides Hispanic outreach programs in five key areas: translation services, immigration services, referral services, crisis intervention and educational programs.
“The Hispanic population is growing, and there are a lot of opportunities to expand the services we provide and partner with others to better meet the needs of the community,” she said.
The diocese recently undertook the challenge of developing a 4-year strategic plan, beginning a community needs assessment.
The V Encuentro of Hispanic and Latino Ministry has been proposed as a priority activity of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ strategic plan for 2017 to 2020.
Alejandra Marroquin, coordinator of Parish Cultural Integration in the Diocese of Scranton, said for over a decade, the Hispanic population has continued to grow in the northeast United States. This growth resulted in an increase of church attendance throughout dioceses. Although numerous masses are offered in Spanish, the diocese is currently forming a plan that church officials said they hope better assists Hispanics, Marroquin said.
According to a diocese fact sheet, there are a number of initiatives. One is to provide a renewed ecclesial vision to invite and engage Hispanic Catholic youth, young adults and families to live out their baptismal vocation. Another is to invite all Catholic leaders to engage and accompany Hispanic Catholics, particularly those who live in at-risk situations and are not actively involved in their faith community. The diocese also aims to identify and promote opportunities for Hispanic Catholic pastoral leaders to serve at all ministerial levels of the church and the larger society.
Marroquin said a couple of problems might present hurdles as church leaders move forward.
One is the current difficulty of recruiting people in the diocese and other organizations who are both qualified and bilingual.
“Putting those two together can sometimes be problematic,” she said.
The other hurdle is an anticipated one — the priesthood is decreasing.
“In a few years that might pose a challenge of how we’re going to approach this,” Marroquin said, “but right now things seem to be going OK.”
An Expanding Local Hispanic Culture
If Ruth Mendoza, a Puerto Rico native, wanted some comfort food like she used to eat before she immigrated, she would have to drive to markets in Philadelphia, or have her parents ship it to her or bring it when they visit.
“That’s what I missed most. We didn’t have anything here,” she said. “Now, we have everything.”
Teri Ooms, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development at Wilkes University, said the growth in different races and ethnic groups in the region can mainly be attributed to individuals moving here from other areas.
Andy Castillo, whose parents were born in the Dominican Republic but he was born in Brooklyn, left New York to open up a barber shop in Pennsylvania. He owns shops there, too, but he settled down in Wilkes-Barre and opened his Hazle Street business in the beginning of the year. All three of his employees are bilingual in Spanish and English, he said.
Castillo, 33, said he provides uniforms to a number of other city barber shops, eight of which are Hispanic-owned. Many Hispanic-owned businesses are small shops, such as grocery stores, bodegas, auto shops, restaurants and a number of other types. However, he said like his shop, a lot of those businesses cater to a diverse clientele and are known for being friendly with the neighborhoods.
“You gotta tell the people, ‘I’m Andy from Andy’s Barber Shop. Here’s my card whenever you need our services,’” he said.
The county didn’t have a Hispanic consumer base before the migration to the region began in the early 2000s with a mass exodus from the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia areas as the cost of living became too high.
Since then, Hispanics have established entrepreneurial communities in the region where small businesses have sprung up. In addition to downtown Hazleton, where there are dozens of Hispanic-owned stores open, certain neighborhoods in the Wilkes-Barre and Scranton areas have seen the culture flourish as business begins catering to Hispanic communities.
“The more we can create diversity and cultural amenities in our region, the more it leads to a stronger quality of life and vibrancy that people are looking for in their communities,” Ooms said.
Hispanic population is expected to triple by 2030 in Columbia, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike, Wayne and Wyoming counties, according to the Mapping America’s Future study by the Washington D.C.-based Urban Institute. The seven-county region had an estimated 67,220 Hispanics in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.